Courtesy of New Brunswick Filmmakers’ Co-operative, 2021
“The fact that I was Black never came up when we played as kids. You could have been purple with a green stripe down the middle of your forehead, and it wouldn’t have mattered.It was only later, when I became older, that I learned what ‘colour barrier’ meant.”
– Willie O’Ree, Autobiography of Willie O’Ree: Hockey’s Black Pioneer, 2000
Born and raised in Fredericton, Willie Eldon O’Ree (b. 1935) broke the colour barrier in the National Hockey League on January 18, 1958. He was the youngest of 13 children, born to Rosebud Wright (1894 – 1987) and Harry Douglas O’Ree (1892 – 1979). His grandfather, Charles William O’Ree (1866 – 1948), served in the No. 2 Construction Battalion during the First World War.
Willie O’Ree’s road to the National Hockey League (NHL) began in New Brunswick’s Amateur Hockey Association, where he first played for the Fredericton Merchants in the York County Hockey League during the 1951-52 season. Later, following stints in the Junior Ontario Hockey Association with the Kitchener Canucks, and Quebec Junior Hockey League with the Quebec Frontenacs, Willie began his pro career with the Quebec Aces in 1956-57. There, while playing junior hockey, he was struck in the eye with a puck and lost 97% of vision in his right eye. At the time, he was told that he would never play hockey again; but Willie was determined that his injury would not prevent him from accomplishing his goal of playing in the NHL. As he later recalled: “I knew that I could accomplish anything that I set out to do as long as I had the will and the desire”.
After a professional career spanning over 20 years, across several teams in Canada as well as the United States, Willie O’Ree was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984, and received the Order of Canada in 2008. In 2018, he was honoured to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and recognized as a ‘Builder’ within the sport. The same year, the NHL instituted the annual Willie O’Ree Hero Award to “recognize the individual who has worked to make a positive impact on his or her community, culture or society to make people better through hockey.” One year later, the 116th United States Congress authorized a bill to award Willie O’Ree with the Congressional Gold Medal: “in recognition of his contributions and commitment to hockey, inclusion, and recreational opportunity.”
Reflecting on his experience with racism in his sport, O’Ree stated, “[I]t didn’t bother me, I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.”